“Alone. Yes, that’s the key word, the most awful word in the English tongue. Murder doesn’t hold a candle to it and hell is only a poor synonym.”Stephen King, Salem’s Lot
I’m sure you’ve seen the memes. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, season eleven, episode five, “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs.” A screencap of the episode ran through a black-and-white filter. The caption: The Lighthouse (2019). Horror shows up in all kinds of strange places: sitcoms and children’s books, long-running sci-fi series about time travel (the Weeping Angels are terrifying) and Batman comics (Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth still has its cold grip around my heart fifteen years after I first read it).
As a piece of satire, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, creates a space for itself to explore the possibilities of horror. According to Dani Cavallaro, author of Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror and Fear, “dark texts are often as funny as they are scary… the comic dimension is reinforced by elements of theatricality that… hint at Goya’s famous image of human life as a deceptive performance.” It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia (IASIP because I am sick of typing out the full episode and show name) uses its exacting gaze to analyze the effects of isolation on the male psyche, peeling away the layers of everyday life to peer at the loneliness lurks beneath the surface.
Outside of the memes, “Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs” possesses several parallel traits with Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse, something which speaks to the specific brand of discomfort it seeks to unfold: psychological horror. The slow burn horror of two men discovering the true meaning of isolation.
Being Alone Sounds Nice, I Guess
Let’s start with my favorite trope in horror: an optimistic beginning. Gee, this cozy cabin in the mountains is going to be the perfect vacation spot for me and my distanced spouse to reconnect to our marriage. I see nothing wrong with adopting these strange children I found in the forest, I’ve always wanted a family. Maybe a year alone in a room with terrifying wallpaper is exactly what I need to calm my nerves, yannow.
Think of Jack Torrance at the beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. When warned that the isolation can really get to some people, he goes so far as to say he looks forward to it. Maybe he’ll even get a little writing done. In both The Lighthouse and IASIP, the protagonist’s start their stint in solitary in good spirits. Both Ephraim and Thomas, and Mac and Dennis, begin their stay with a toast. While Thomas’ speech is certainly more somber, the followup with a moment of levity breaks the tension. We enter the movie giggling. Meanwhile, Dennis keeps his toast short and sweet: “Here’s to a good night’s sleep”
In Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, when the town of Macondo discovers they cannot sleep, they too are lulled into a false sense of security: “No one was alarmed at first. On the contrary, they were happy at not sleeping because there was so much to do in Macondo in those days that there was barely enough time.”
What Thomas and Ephraim and Mac and Dennis must learn soon is that their optimism is false. It is a thin veil that conceals the true horror that lies ahead. Suffering is foreshadowed by a minor inconvenience, a repeat sound that sees the audience thinking “wow that would be really annoying to hear all the time.” The iterative shriek of a foghorn, a mysterious meep, the dull roar of a pool motor: they wear away at the back of the mind. By the time the characters first hear the noise, though, it is too late. There is no going back. The boat has left the harbor. The bet is on.
“There was no one to see the autumn leaves steal across the grass but the three of them. It gave Jack a curious shrinking feeling, as if his life force had dwindled to a mere spark while the hotel and the grounds had suddenly doubled in size and become sinister, dwarfing them with sullen, inanimate power.”Stephen King, The Shining
Alone Together: A Man is an Island
In 1968, Donald Crowhurst set off on an around the world yacht race. Crowhurst was a man who had more than once had to reinvent himself. This journey to circumnavigate the globe was, perhaps, his avenue towards becoming a newer, better man, yet the longer he was at sea, the deeper his isolation sunk its claws into him. His race was not going as he imagined and he began to falsify his position, further driving a wedge between himself and others. To ensure land radio didn’t pick up his boat’s actual signals, he had to go radio silent for three months. He became broody, lonely, yet he began spending more time in his cabin. His yacht was eventually found empty with two copies of logbooks: one real, one fake. His body was never recovered.
The sea offers both a physical and a psychological barrier between the protagonists in The Lighthouse and the rest of the world. Likewise, the suburbs in IASIP are, comically, as distanced from day-to-day life as Mac and Dennis could possibly be. The Lighthouse and IASIP explore the effects of social isolation combined with loneliness. While social isolation is an objective state of being, loneliness is a subjective state of mind. In both pieces, the two become irrevocably intertwined.
But why two? If the film and show really wanted to explore the effects of being alone, why not actually place the character in a totally isolated environment. Well, to quote the great philosopher Harry Nilsson, “Two can be as bad as one. It’s the loneliest number since the number one.”
By placing two people in total social isolation, the narratives force each character to place all expectations for social interaction, humanity, and connection on one other person. The pressure of this combined with the mounting anxiety of isolation is enough to crack anyone. Studies have found that single people who live alone tend to have stronger social ties, spend time with friends, and attend more social gatherings than married counterparts. People who are alone might seek valuable coping mechanisms. People who are not, technically alone, might not recognize the strain until it is too late.
When Mac and Dennis first arrive at their new home in the suburbs, there are two key moments that begin to really reinforce that social distance:
- Their rejection of their neighbor, the overly friendly Wally, distances their unit from the outside world
- Mac being “the only one” to hear a chirping noise distances themselves from each other
Let’s talk about how we know the things we know. Okay, wait. That’s a big topic. Let’s talk more specifically about the role social confirmation plays in helping us achieve certainty. A very loud sound wakes you up in the middle of the night. You jolt up in a cold sweat. “What was that?” you ask your partner, who was still awake, reading. “What was what?” they reply.
Sharing experience can be an important building block of becoming certain that what you experienced was true in the most objective sense of the word, something essential in high-tension, high isolation, or highly uncanny situations. You may not need a friend to confirm that it is cold outside, but you sure would love if someone else also saw that spectral vision in the forest, a man with the head of a ram, beckoning for you to join him.
High-stress situations make social confirmation (a term I’ve cobbled together so, like, don’t Google it because I do not, in this case, mean behavioral confirmation, which is the first result on Google when you search for social confirmation) a necessity. It is why gaslighting is so insidious, yet effective at wearing down your certainty in your self and your reality.
In the case of Mac/Dennis and Ephraim/Thomas, the men rely on each other to confirm their experiences. Yet from early on, they experience seeds of doubt. Ephraim has strange, sea-drenched dreams that neither he nor the audience can quite divorce from reality. Mac hears a mysterious chirping, which Dennis claims he cannot.
Within both pieces of media, even within their small social bubble, there is a rigid hierarchy of power that delineates a boundary between the men. They are never on even footing, with Thomas and Dennis taking on a leader role while Mac and Ephraim are forced to follow. Authority creates distance, turning moments of connection into momentary lapses between orders. While Dennis and Thomas take the most pleasurable work for themselves, they foist grueling, lonely manual labor onto Ephraim and Mac, weakening their tenuous link, weakening their final link to humanity.
“The themes of The Lighthouse are embedded with a very male brand of frustration, an aggressive, drunken possessiveness over a light that Thomas calls “she” that looks like two animals butting horns, but there is a brief, brief moment among the rage where they almost kiss.”Vinnie Mancuso
2005 gave us The Descent, in which an all-female cast presents a tale of isolation, distance, and fear. However, while one can absolutely read The Descent through a feminine lens (note to self: write that article), masculinity is far more ingrained in these tales of isolation. Homoerticism runs through these pieces like blue veins run through Stilton. In part, both stories are explorations of disconnection. Each character struggles with their situation, but rather than commiserating and sharing, they turn into antagonists. The societal pressure on men to bottle up emotions looms large as Mac and Dennis and Thomas and Ephraim lose all external support systems, the natural rhythm of life, and the comfort of certainty. By following the rule of repression, instead of becoming each other’s support, they become the enemy, the other, further deepening their sense of loneliness. As in real life, where male suicide rates are 3 times higher than female, solitude is deadly.
To Willem Defoe, who plays The Lighthouse’s Thomas, affirms the movie’s exploration of what it means to be a man:
“Toxic masculinity! They’re pushing each other’s buttons out of fear and out of threat of who they are. And they’re both guilty. They have a sense of guilt, of wrong. There’s no moral judgment in this story. It’s just to watch these two guys struggling to find a way to survive themselves, really… It’s a simple story, but it’s got existential roots and identity things and things about masculinity and domination and submission. And for better and for worse. Then you see it flip-flop and it’s kind of cool.”
Extreme Unreality: What Happens to the Body in Isolation?
According to Nicholas Royle, the uncanny “comes above all, perhaps, in the uncertainties of silence, solitude and darkness.” As time drags on for our characters, both in The Lighthouse and in IASIP, camaraderie gives way to sullen silence.
Both pieces set a specific deadline. Mac and Dennis need only survive a month in their new environment; Ephraim is only meant to be on duty for a few weeks. The deadlines create urgency, the kind of tension one feels when a police detective in a movie announces that it’s his last week on the job before retirement.
Like the characters, the audience can look towards that end point as a shiny beacon of hope (a lighthouse, if you will… sorry), an escape. By setting a stopwatch from the offset, the narratives make the audience hyper aware of the passage of time. IASIP initially delineates time skips with title cards, but eventually these disappear as the characters’ own sense of the passage of time wears away.
“He had no idea what time it was, how long he had spent in the Colorado Lounge or how long he had been here in the ballroom. Time had ceased to matter.”Stephen King, The Shining
In 1961, geologist Michel Sifree was curious about the effect of isolation and darkness on the human body. He extended a two-week exploration of an underground glacier into two months of solitude. Over the weeks, the explorer’s sense of subjective time became detached from objective time. On returning to the surface, Siffre found it took him five minutes to count to what he thought was 120 seconds.
Under such tense conditions, it does not take long for the characters’ sanity to fray. The decay begins with hallucinations, dreamscapes that melt into the waking day. Research into the effects of loneliness has long identified a correlation between isolation, anxiety, and psychosis. In the absence of stimuli, the human brain takes refuge in imagined sounds and images – a frenzied grasp at communication. A beckoning mermaid, a mysterious beep. The breaking point is nigh.
“Something about [“Mac and Dennis Move to the Suburbs”] was reminiscent of The Shining. A tale of isolation, Dennis and Mac’s sanity is worn thin by their mundane routine. Things start to get surreal.”Paul Gulyas
Wally points out that it is “a hot one today,” one too many times, finally breaking Dennis’ psyche with the torture of monotonous repetition. He turns violent. “A storm of fists,” Dennis threatens, removing every article of clothing, baring himself in his rawest form, stalking closer and closer to Wally, threatening to break social contract in a way that cannot be undone. But then there’s a snap and we find ourselves back in reality. The relief we might feel at the scene’s being imagined is counterbalanced by the dread of uncertainty. Now, we’ve lost the ability to trust that what the camera shows us is true.
The decay of the characters’ mental wellbeing is reflected in their living space. Mac and Dennis’ beautiful big house becomes a den of bloated trash bags and gaping trypophobic drywall. In The Lighthouse, water eventually invades a space once kept meticulously clean. Thomas and Ephraim’s environment is eroding them, emotionally and physically.
And what’s a man to do in such unbearable circumstances, when the link between reality and truth is severed, when perception is the only reliable experience: he drinks, of course. Alcohol is a constant presence in both pieces, a reminder to the audience that the characters are not sound of mind and body.
Betrayal: A Turning Point
Betrayal begins with the death of an animal. In both pieces, animals represent a promise, a connection between the two men. Thomas orders Ephraim to leave seagulls alone; Dennis gifts Mac a puppy. When Ephraim kills the seagull in a fit of rage, he threatens his connection to Thomas. When Dennis doesn’t even react to Mac’s accidental murder of Dennis Jr., he inadvertently provides a final, clear-cut answer to the question “are we in this together?” The answer pushes Mac past his own breaking point. He determines to drag Dennis into his circle by any means necessary.
Dennis admitting he has grown weary of Mac’s Famous Mac N Cheese hurts Mac the way Ephraim’s claim that Thomas’ cooking is bad hurts Thomas. Meals represent bonding for these men, a moment early in their isolation when they felt connection. To cast doubt on the purity of this connection, on the positive associations of this memory, is to permanently sever the connection between the two men.
The only catalyst needed to turn the men from comrades in arms to enemies is a second betrayal: the discovery of a secret item, whether a logbook that renders the last few weeks’ suffering pointless or a closet full of Kraft Mac n Cheese. After all, secrets in the vacuum of human interaction, of regular routine, are deadly.
Isolation and Loss of the Self
“In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there. At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive me, that I realised the screams were my own.”Sarah Shourd, on her 10,000 hours in solitary confinement
Isolation blurs the boundaries of the self. Both narratives contain doppelgangers, at least in name. Some have gone so far as to speculate, in the case of The Lighthouse, that the two protagonists are actually split parts of one man’s psyche. Whether you subscribe to this reading or not, a name is a form of identity, and the presence of a repetition in such a confined space elicits an air of uncertainty.
I want to be clear not that I’m not suggesting that Dennis and Dennis Jr. are actually the same person (dog-person?). However, when Mac chooses to name the dog after Dennis, he creates an irretrievable connection between man and canine. An odd choice, it offers Mac a Hail Mary attempt to generate some semblance of human connection. What does it mean, then, that he is willing to let the dog die?
The Lighthouse and IASIP intertwine social isolation, solitude, and manhood into extremely effective examples of psychological horror. By segmenting their characters in a claustrophobic environment, the pieces both confront broad, existential questions about the boundaries of the self and specific societal questions about masculinity and vulnerability. The effect is a slow, agonizing descent into madness. In these pieces, solitude is not the single, deadly chop of a battle axe; it is an open wound that, if left unchecked, festers.
“Fear is not a sporadic event but an ongoing condition endowed with eminently ambivalent powers. Though blinding and numbing, it concurrently operates as a function of consciousness insofar as it offers illuminating insights into the experience of being human as fractured and chaotic. Fear is not disturbing because it intimates that the fabric of our lives, an apparently orderly weave, is being disrupted or is about to be disrupted, but because it shows that the fabric has always been laddered and frayed.”Dani Cavallaro, Gothic Vision: Three Centuries of Horror, Terror and Fear